Be kind to your counselor

November is a stressful time for a lot of high school students, and it's also a stressful time for high school counselors. Last week Patrick O'Connor, who does a lot of counseling, wrote this:

"There are those students who will never, ever understand that applying to college is a team activity.  As far as they are concerned, if they wake up on Halloween and decided to apply to a college with a November 1 deadline, there’s no reason they could possibly think of that would prevent you from submitting their transcript, along with a personalized letter espousing their talents.  After all, they reason—they gave you a day’s notice!

What’s even worse is when these very same tardy students come back into your office November 4 and say 'I just checked my application portal, and it says you never sent my transcript!' Try as you may, the student just won’t believe it when you try to point out that the college has just received 3,000 transcripts in the last three days, so they haven’t had a chance to file them all yet.  This is also a perfect time to point out why you set an October 15 deadline for November 1 applications, but they won’t understand that either.  In fact, that likely only increases the chances of their parents calling wanting to know why you didn’t send the transcript, and why you yelled at their child." (Read the entire post at Counselors' Corner here.)

Now, I'm sure the student he's describing isn't you, because you're much more understanding than the typical college-bound high school student. But just in case, let's review dealing with your high school counselor.

Most high school students--and their parents--think their own counselor at school is less than great. But most high school counselors are severely overworked. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor per 250 students, but in the U.S. the average is almost double that. Even the best counselors have trouble keeping up with twice as much work as is reasonable. There's not much you can do about the quality of your own assigned counselor nor the workload they have, but there are some things you can do to make it easier for your counselor to do a great job for you.

Have clear and reasonable expectations. Counselors have specialized knowledge, but not crystal balls. They need input and cooperation from you in order to know how to best help you. The less you interact with your counselor, the less your counselor can really help you. Counselors need time to work. The more notice you can give them ahead of time that you need something, the better. If you ask for anything with less of a two week turnaround, even if it's not your fault, consider it a big favor your counselor is doing you to get it out on time.

It's best to assume that your counselor only works during posted business hours. As a teacher who dealt with seniors, I would check my work email a few times in the last week of December to see if any last-minute pleas for help would come in. Some years there were none, but most years I would get at least one or two emails from someone who "just discovered" a scholarship or college application that needed a rec letter from me by January 1. If it was a student I'd already written a letter for, then changing a few lines and sending it to a new address was no problem and only took a few minutes. Once or twice I wrote last-minute letters or did some last-minute essay editing for a really good student who I trusted and knew would continue to be a great student. But most of the requests came from mediocre students who were clearly dealing with procrastination, and those emails I just ignored. I'd send a response when I got back to work explaining that I had a good vacation with my family but was now back at work checking email and wondered if I could still help them out. I'm sure you're wonderful and all, but your last-minute effort is probably not worth your counselor's New Year's Eve, so it's best not to ask.

You should also remember that your deadlines aren't necessarily your counselor's deadlines. If you get your stuff in on time, most colleges will still accept materials from your counselor days or even weeks later. If you're ahead of the game and set an arbitrary early deadline for yourself--something like having all your applications finished and submitted before December 1 even if they're not due until January 1--that's great. But your counselor is not obligated to get materials sent in a month early, and it's usually unreasonable to ask them to do so.

Go back and do your homework. Before asking your counselor for anything, go back and check everything your counselor has already sent you. The emails your counselor sent out that you ignored? Go back and read them. The hand-outs and sign-up sheets outside the counseling office? Go check them out. There's a good chance that your counselor has already answered your question before you thought of it, so go back and have a look at their communication first. Doing so minimizes their overload, giving them a chance to do a better job for everyone. More important to you, going through this process of checking all their communication helps you feel--and be--more in control of your situation. You feel less dependent on others as you figure out the process. 

Be early, be polite. You don't need another lesson in manners. But please remember this: making your requests early and in a polite tone very often gets you what you want. Making your requests at the last moment or in a rude or demanding way very often backfires. When it comes to stressed-out counselors deciding who to prioritize as they wade through the paperwork, nice guys finish first. After every step of the application process, make sure you say a genuine thank you. And at the end of the year when the process is over, make sure you send another thank-you

If problems persist, get help. Maybe you're doing things right and your counselor, for whatever reason, just isn't. I'm all for being polite, but sometimes you need help to make sure that your counselor isn't jeopardizing your college future. It's time to get help from an adult. You may need a parent to step in, you may want a teacher to lend you support, you may need both. Explain clearly what the problem is and what you need done. It will help to write this down to make sure you explain yourself well and have documentation of your efforts. Understand what you need and ask for help getting what you need.

If you get to the point that you have to ask for help, you're probably pretty angry. But please please please do yourself a big favor and consider this: your only goal is to get what's necessary for you to finish your applications. Your goal isn't to make sure your counselor knows how angry you are. Your goal isn't to get your counselor into trouble. Your goal isn't to get your counselor fired. Trying to do these other things is actually going to make it more difficult, not less, to get what you need to complete your applications. So keep your eye on your goal and act accordingly. If this means being more polite and forgiving than you want to be, deal with it. If this means reminding your parents to be more calm and understanding than they want to be, tell them to deal with it. Having your college prospects limited because of someone else's mistakes is frustrating, but making the problem worse with your own tactless approach is even worse. When it's all over, if you really have doubts about your counselor's ability to do their job, politely raise your concerns with your school's principal...and then graduate and let it go. 


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